On June 18 2019 as part of the “40 Days of Action,” the Michigan Poor Peoples Campaign: of a National Call for Moral Renewal, undertook a series of direct actions in and around Campus Martius, center for the development priorities of Dan Gilbert and the administration of Detroit Mayor, Mike Duggan. Gilbert owns some 100 buildings downtown, is constructing a $billion skyscraper (over 60% in taxpayer expense, including school funding), is currently under indictment for predatory loans, is responsible for 1800 mortgage foreclosures (half of which are abandoned or demolished), co-led the Blight Task force selecting building (and neighborhoods) for demolition, and for some is the darling of the city’s comeback narrative – Making Detroit Great Again. The cities footprint is being concentrated and downsized at the expense of poor and Back people who are literally being expelled foreclosures, water shut-offs, school closures, and transit infrastructure withdrawal. Seven people, of the 23 arrested that day, are currently on trial for blocking the QLine (a three-mile streetcar name for Gilbert’s Quiken Loans and built at a cost of $146 million). The “Gilbert 7” did not deny their actions but testified to their reasons and justification for the action, naming the price of racism and poverty. At this printing, the jury has been out three days and is currently deadlocked with half the group committed to innocence by moral necessity. Dan Gilbert has plans to demolish the room in which the jury is deliberating, along with Circuit Court and Wayne Co. Jail, all of which will be rebuilt far from the now largely white downtown. What follows is the closing argument of Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann who defended himself in the case.
In my opening statement I thanked you for serving on the jury and underscored my conviction of importance of what we do as one. So again, thanks.
You’ve been instructed by the judge not to read any press accounts of the trial. It would actually be pretty hard to find any. You heard Charles Wilson of Rock Security, Dan Gilbert’s security operation testify that they have a whole unit, a room full of people who do nothing all day but scan the media for reference to him. We’re talking about the landlord of the Detroit News and Free Press here.
Actually, that’s been true as well of the Poor Peoples Campaign here and nationally. In Michigan beginning Mothers Day there were over 100 direct action arrests; nationwide in 40 states it was 1500, the largest focused campaign of civil disobedience in American history, but none of you had heard of it until this week. Too little chance of you being prejudiced by seeing news coverage. That’s part of the very systematic silence on racism and poverty, we are trying to break with our actions and now our testimony on the record here.
So many basic institutions are under assault these days…education, voting rights, democracy itself. A jury is one of the last remaining institutions of direct democracy. I often find myself asking, how do you preserve democracy? One answer is by exercising it. It’s how you organize, build movements, structure campaigns. It’s even how you make decisions as a defense team. How do you preserve the absolute democratic power of a jury? The same way, you exercise it.
I also said that in defending myself I would try to follow the law and court rules and rulings. You’ve seen me bungle a couple times, but largely I’m pleased to have done OK. You know there were times I wanted to say more, but objections were sustained. But you have heard our experience of poor and Black folk not only left out of city priorities, but actively expelled from Detroit by the structures and work of Mr. Gilbert. And there would be much more to say about that.
There’s one thing that can’t be excluded from the public square: that’s conscience. Once again, you preserve conscience simply by acting on it. I think of my conscience as God’s way of whispering to me. You may have a different way of thinking about it.
You know, early yesterday morning I was up considering what I might say in a closing argument. I wondered if I might need to say something about conscience being expelled from the courtroom. But actually, not so. Our witnesses have managed to convey something of the violence inflicted on the low-income and Black citizens of Detroit, as well as our histories, our commitments, all of what led us to that place on the tracks of the QLine.
I was struck that the prosecution couldn’t question us about this action without bringing up the Montgomery Bus Boycott. [The prosecutor tried to set the “economic boycott” of the Montgomery struggle against our civil disobedience[i]]. Here is a campaign begun by Detroiter Rosa Parks refusing to move. The driver stops the bus and demands it. The police are called and she is told to move, perhaps warned three times, and still refuses. This is the act of civil disobedience that not only launched a city-wide campaign, but virtually an entire movement, even shaping the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This morning several of the defendants were asking about the cross I’m wearing. It was a Christmas gift from my grandson Isaac, so I’ve been wearing it to honor him, but of course also to brings into the courtroom in a small way, the memory of Jesus who began his ministry with the conviction that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to preach good news to the poor and release to prisoners. His ministry came to completion in arrest and trial, though of course there were no juries of his peers in those days…
I was glad that we established in voir dire that it wouldn’t prejudice you if any of us didn’t testify. I do wish you’d gotten to hear from Tommy Tackett, Greg Olszta, and Richard Levey. If anything it was a hardship on them. [Here an objection was raised and sustained by the judge, so I was only able to turn to them and say,] I love you guys.
Just so you know, I’ll be praying for you during deliberations. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a pastor so I do that. I won’t be praying that you find us not guilty (though I do hope it). I’ll simply pray that your own consciences are alive to what you’ve heard and that your conversations include the poor of this city. If you do that, I’ll gladly receive the verdict you deliver. Thank you.
[i] Later in their closing rebuttal (prosecutors get first and last shot at the jury) they also abused the Letter from a Birmingham Jail having downloaded an isolated paragraph about just and unjust laws. Dr. King said he upheld just laws and morally violated unjust laws. They argued that “obstructing a street car” was a just law. What they omitted, apparently without realizing, is that in the next section he explained that he was in jail for “parading without a permit,” a law that was just on the face of it, but could be unjust in its application.